With the release of fourth album Familiar Stranger, BOB EVANS loses the acoustic guitars, gets
louder and thinks harder. ANDY HAZEL takes notes.
‘I think it’s me,’ says Kevin Mitchell (aka Bob Evans) laughing. ‘I’m the Familiar Stranger. Sometimes with introspection you start to view yourself as a different person, when you look at old photos, or a home video of yourself 10, 20 years ago and you think ‘I know that’s me’, but it’s like looking at a different person with different experiences, there’s a weird detachment that happens when you start doing that.’
Mitchell is chatty, relaxed and worthy of the ‘super friendly dude’ reputation that precedes him. Even in states of deep introspection, he’s jovial, likeable and almost impossibly humble. With buzz surrounding his latest singles Don’t Wanna Grow Up and Go (especially the latter’s cameo-boasting filmclip), the album is poised to be his boldest and most respected yet.
‘I like the title because Familiar Stranger summed up the kind of record I wanted to make,’ he continues. ‘I was trying to hold onto the familiar aspects of the last record that were important to me but I wanted to do something musically that was a bit more adventurous and a bit weirder.’
Though Mitchell isn’t about to break out a nose flute and jam with a minimalist Peruvian jazz ensemble, his latest album is more adventurous and daring than his previous three. The first of these allowed him to make the transition from fronting one of Australia’s most successful bands, Jebediah, and the following two won awards and legions of new fans. One thing that hasn’t changed is Mitchell’s sense of humour and sneaky references to other bands in his own songs. Get it Together features the line ‘All the kids queue around the bend / and they’re stuck trying to pretend / they’re in Vampire Weekend / Get it together’. ‘It just amuses me,’ he laughs, ‘its tongue in cheek. I’ve seen in the last few years it seemed like every fucking new band sounded like Vampire Weekend. It was funny, it makes me laugh, it’s like ‘oh here’s this new band…and, oh there it is…that Vampire Weekend influence’. It’s like when Jebediah were first starting everyone was trying to sing like Eddie Vedder, and I remember thinking ‘I don’t care how I sing, as long as I don’t sound like Eddie Vedder.’
Differences this time round though, are manifold both musically and thematically. ‘I’m singing to myself,’ he says changing tack. ‘The last two records there was definitely a sense that I was singing to somebody. On Suburban Songbook I was singing to my wife, almost that entire album is being sung to her, or I’m singing to friends. With this record it’s far more introspective and I really am singing to myself.’
To accentuate this, Mitchell decided rhythm section would be the birthplace of the songs, rather than having them driven by acoustic guitars, a factor that immediately changes their nature, such as the first single from the album Don’t Wanna Grow Up Anymore. ‘If you knew nothing about me, I didn’t want to sound like a guy with an acoustic guitar making a record. I wanted it to exist in its own space and not be immediately tied to a genre. As soon as you feel as though you’re tied to some kind of scene, I think it’s only natural to want to kick against it. I definitely felt that this time round, that I wanted to move out of that before it swallowed me up.’
The rhythm section around which Mitchell built these songs is no ordinary duo, as Mitchell explains. ‘I met Tony Buchan the bass player over dinner last year. We were sitting next to each other and I was telling him about this record I was about to make and what I was trying to do and I think I must have mentioned Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace, Beck, Air, M83 etc) as the kind of drummer I wanted. Tony said ‘I know Joey, we’ve worked together’, and I said ‘fuck…that’s cool,’ and I guess he was my in. We sent the songs to Joey and he agreed to come out for five days, so I had my rhythm section. I felt so incredibly lucky to have those guys, they were perfect for the record. Tony was enthusiastic, and because he’s a producer as well, he understood what I was trying to do. He understood my references, understood exactly what I meant; it was just really fortuitous.’
Despite deciding that he wanted to get away from Nashville, the birthplace of the last two albums, and record at home, an offer to record at Melbourne’s legendary Sing-Sing Studios proved too good a chance to turn down. ‘I made the first Jebediah records there back in the 90s, and I never thought I’d ever go back there, just because it’s an expensive studio. It was nice because I’ve got such fond memories of the place and because it seemed…almost too good for me,’ he laughs. ‘I guess if I really wanted it to sound like an awesome version of my garage I would have recorded it in my garage, but I don’t have the means. I feel like I’ve only recently started to get good at making records,’ he says with his typical diplomacy. ‘It’s always been such a foreign thing to me, playing live was what it was all about. Making records was this thing I had to learn. For years, I don’t think Jebediah weren’t all that good at recording. Only in the last phase of my life have I started to get the hang of it.’
Seemingly reinvigorated from newfound fatherhood, and following a move from his hometown of Perth to his wife’s home of Melbourne, Mitchell has his next moved planned already should complacency strike. ‘What do you do when you’ve built a career writing about struggle, or losing love or falling in love, and before you know it you’re in your mid-30s, you’re married, you have a kid, you live in a house in the suburbs, you’ve got nothing else to write about? When I was making the Basement Birds album, we were sitting around and came up with the realisation of an answer. Politics,’ he says laughing loudly. ‘The world is always going to have problems; it’s a never-ending well of inspiration. Of course, I speak in jest, but who knows? Maybe I’ll just go on a drug bender and make a record like Tame Impala.’ He says smiling with a hint of danger in his eyes.
Keen to turn his lens outward, Mitchell doesn’t see social issues as being outside the realm of Bob Evans’s forthcoming songbooks ‘I think I could because I am reasonably well informed, I’d have to get over the self-conscious thing in my head saying ‘no one wants to hear you sing about this shit.’ There was a while there where I thought that about other subjects too, and when I starting off doing Bob Evans coming out of Jebediah I was worried ‘can I sing these love songs and stuff? Can I get away with pretending to be John Lennon?’ he says laughing loudly again.’ It’s hard to explain without sounding clichéd, but if you’re doing stuff for the wrong reasons, people can see through you, and can sniff it a mile away. I hold firmly to that belief. I think in Melbourne and Sydney, you’re so close to the internal mechanisms of the industry and fashion, and Perth is so far away from it that it’s a little bit less affected, but there are negatives to that as well. Perth can sometimes suffer from that small town mentality where people can fall into the trap of being big fish in a small pond, and they forget there’s a great big world out there. That’s the great thing about Tame Impala; they’re showing there is a great big world out there and it can be conquered, and you don’t have to change, you don’t have to sound like Vampire Weekend. Who I do love, don’t get me wrong, I just think Vampire Weekend are the best band at being Vampire Weekend.’